Seniors Companion Project preps for info sessions

Ken Kellar

Amidst a flurry of government funding announcements, one local group is gearing up to take the next steps towards being operational.

During a stopover for lunch and a few reveals at the Fort Frances Senior Centre on Friday morning, Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford announced funding that is going towards the Seniors Companion Project here in Fort Frances.

“Funding was provided to Fort Frances earlier this year that we had not announced and were waiting for today, and that was an allocation of $15,000 in support of the Seniors Companion Project,” he said.

“It’s a support project administered right here by Andrea [Avis] and Sarah [Klassen] in Fort Frances, and it’s a wonderful effort undertaken by the Town, CMHA Fort Frances and the Age Friendly committee.”

Avis, who is serving in the role of coordinator during the current phase of the project, said the money will go towards helping the project start to build momentum ahead of starting up some of the programs they’re planning to offer.

“What we’re doing right now is we’re doing the promotional material,” she explained.

“We’re doing community awareness. We’re going to be doing meetings with the stakeholders who were initially involved in writing the grant. They were people from the Town of Fort Frances, the Sister Kennedy Center [Fort Frances Senior Centre], health unit, the age-friendly committee, Riverside and United Native Friendship Centre, the Metis associations. All the stakeholders are going to be coming to meetings throughout the project period to stay up-to-date and informed on our progress.”

While the funding itself may appear on the smaller side, Avis said that the project has already accomplished quite a few things in the short time they’ve been working.

“What we did this year is we’ve made our branding, we created our logo, we got our information,” she said.

“Our website will be up and running soon, which will be through a link through the town of Fort Frances. Part of their role is to administer the funds for the Seniors Companion Project. We have the IT support. We have a little office space here at the senior centre. And so that’s worked really well for the project.”

As the program is still in its infancy, Avis explained that the end goal is to eventually offer three different programs that will pair up a senior in need with a volunteer over the age of 16.

“The seniors companion project is a free service that aims to improve seniors’ health and well-being by reducing isolation and loneliness through the support of friendship, socializing and activities,” Avis explained.

“There’s going to be a friendly visit where someone will just stop up and have a cup of tea, maybe watch a curling game with them… Another one is a stepping out program.”

“[For] a lot of seniors it gets harder and harder for them to step out, and that might just mean walking to the end of the hall and picking up their mail. In nicer weather, maybe a little walk around the block… And the other one is a friendly phone call,” Avis added.

She said that it’s not uncommon to see anxiety and fear around answering the phone, particularly with the rise of scams, so the friendly phone call will be just that.

“It would mean that ‘okay, I know I’m expecting this phone call. It is somebody I can trust, it is someone I can speak to about maybe how my day is going,’ Avis said.

“And there will be some training involved with us and the volunteers about some talking points, about how to engage with that person that you’re phoning.”

The project is currently planning to offer several volunteer information sessions at various locations around town in order to drum up interest and let potential volunteers learn more about the three programs and potentially sign up.

“At the end of this project period we are hoping to have a bank of volunteers who have shown interest,” Avis said.

“We can get their contact information, we can touch base with them with our next project period, which will be applying for grants right away for that.”

One thing Avis stressed is that the Seniors Companion Project isn’t looking to duplicate services already offered by other community groups. Rather, they hope to work collaboratively as an umbrella for different resources that seniors can turn to and potentially increase participation on either side of the equation.

“We’re definitely not trying to change anything anybody’s doing, because anything anybody’s doing is fantastic,” Avis noted.

“But we are trying to reach out to people who maybe haven’t been aware of that or maybe they’re new volunteers. Maybe they’re new to the community and it’s like ‘man, I got a lot of time on my hands in this new community. I’d like to reach out and do something.'”

The first of the planned information sessions will take place on Monday, Jan. 20 at the Fort Frances Public Library and Thursday, Jan. 23 at Columbus House. Both meetings will begin at 1:30 p.m. and are open to those 16 and older who want to learn more about volunteering with the project.

Rickford noted he felt the Seniors Companion Project was an important initiative to see get up and running in Fort Frances.

“There are a number of seniors who go through transitions when they lose their partner or their families move away or both,” he said.

“The seniors companion project is a vital service that ensures that people who are largely housebound have an opportunity to have some companionship to help them perform some activities of daily living or to do just a visit or to go out for a walk with them.”

“We make some of these big multimillion dollar announcements and yes, they matter and they fundamentally change things for the better for the community, but sometimes it’s these smaller targeted announcements that make a huge difference in a person’s life,” Rickford continued.

“That’s what the Senior Companion Project is, and that’s why it’s been identified as being so important. It’s one of a kind here and we’re going to try and build on it across the region because we’re very impressed by what the folks here in Fort Frances have accomplished with it.”